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A year of lost chances by Obama in Iran

His go-soft approach has accomplished nothing since the rigged election. But it's not too late.

Jonathan Schanzer

is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Saturday will mark one year since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole a second presidential term in a rigged Iranian election. The response last year was shocking: Hundreds of thousands of angry Iranians flooded the streets. It was the worst unrest in Tehran in a decade. It was also a chance to turn the screws on the regime in Tehran, which has been sponsoring terrorism for decades, working to acquire a nuclear weapon, and repressing its own people.

Sadly, one year on, President Obama has failed to capitalize. The mullahs are ever closer to getting the bomb, have not stopped bankrolling terrorism, and have systematically brutalized dissenters.

In short, this has been a year of missed opportunities.

From the start, the president failed to condemn the rigged elections and galvanize international opinion that might have pressured the mullahs to loosen their iron grip. Instead of throwing his support behind the forces of change in Iran, Obama said: "The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States." A full 11 days after the stolen election, the president finally stated that he was "appalled and outraged" at how Tehran was cracking down on protesters.

The president, in retrospect, was trying in vain to keep dialogue going between the United States and Iran. He was convinced Iran would strike a "grand bargain" and cease building its illicit nuclear program.

Indeed, it was hope of a grand bargain that led Obama to hold back on condemning the brutal treatment of dissenters. Similarly, the president was largely silent over the sham trials and executions of individuals charged with trying to overthrow the regime.

The missed opportunities continued into the fall. After learning Iran was building a covert uranium-enrichment facility near the city of Qom, Obama inexplicably chose not to hammer the Iranians during a major policy address at the United Nations in September. Obama, in fact, asked France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's Gordon Brown to keep the facility secret so that he could deliver a general speech. The topic? Nuclear disarmament.

Then, on Nov. 3, in a speech marking the 30th anniversary of the Tehran hostage crisis (when Iranian radicals held 52 American hostages for 444 days), the president bent over backward to let the Iranians know that Washington was trying to accommodate them. He announced that he had "accepted a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency" that would enable Iran to continue enriching uranium for medical purposes, similar to a deal forwarded by Turkey and Brazil last month.

To be sure, this was a mixed message. How could the United States allow Iran to maintain facilities for enriching uranium for one purpose but forbid the country from enriching uranium for others?

Congress, meanwhile, had come under sufficient pressure from constituents nationwide to finally draft significant Iran sanctions legislation. In December, the House passed a bill calling for sanctions against Iran's gasoline suppliers and companies that aided its supply chain. In January, the Senate passed a version that also went after Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the primary players in the country's energy sector.

Not only did the president make no mention of this legislation in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address, but in the months that followed he repeatedly asked Congress to hold off on passage. Indeed, the bill has languished in conference committee - at Obama's behest - since April.

Despite a long and frustrating year, Obama can still hold the mullahs' feet to the fire. He can unequivocally denounce the Iranian leadership. He can unleash the comprehensive sanctions that he has kept bottled up in Congress. And he can apply the full force of his presidency to persuade our world partners to impose crippling international sanctions.

Most important, he can signal to the Iranian people that America stands with them.

Two weeks ago, Ahmadinejad was heckled by a boisterous group during a speech in the city of Khorramshahr. Some 66 million more Iranians want to voice similar frustrations. They await a sign from the American president.